Meet Thurston County’s New Public Health and Social Services Director: Schelli Slaughter
By, Rebekah Finn this story was originally printed in the May 2017 VOICE Magazine, published by the Thurston County Chamber.
Schelli Slaughter is the Director of Thurston County Public Health and Social Services. Her first day was March 27. She took over the role previously held by Don Sloma.
On a wet Wednesday morning in April, I was able to spend a few minutes with a very busy Schelli Slaughter in her office at the Public Health and Social Services building on Lilly Road in Olympia. Although she had back-to-back meetings and had to multi-task our interview with a photo shoot, Ms. Slaughter was impeccably put-together, and was immediately a joy to talk to. In a fly-by morning chat, I was able to gain some deep insight into this experienced leader in our community.
Thurston County Roots and Years of Social Service
Although she is new to her position, Slaughter is no stranger to Thurston County, having attended elementary school in Rochester and high school in Lacey. After starting school at the University of Puget Sound and attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she finished up her schooling back here in Thurston County at The Evergreen State College.
Slaughter’s professional background is incredibly diverse in the best way—she has done so many different things in the realm of health care and social services, from counseling in the behavioral health field and conducting research at Western State Hospital, to working with children in schools and being a birth doula. Her most recent experience is 11 years as the executive director of the Family Support Center of South Sound.
The Family Support Center is a diverse, nonprofit organization, with several different types of programs and services, all of which relate to public health. Slaughter attributes much of her readiness for the Public Health and Social Services position to her 14 years of experience at the Family Support Center and many years of local and state community leadership positions.
“It’s been a pretty easy transition for me thus far. There are a lot of similarities, and I have a really strong background in social services, which is a really important part of this agency.”
One of the aspects of her new role that Slaughter enjoys is that she is able to continue a lot of the working relationships she began in her previous position, as well as forge new partnerships. “I get to work with some of the same people in our community, and this is an amazing department to work for. There are lots of really great, committed people here who really care about making our community healthy and safe,” she said.
Current Work and Looking Forward
What is the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Department working on these days?
“We have a new board of commissioners and Board of Health [which is the governing body for the department], and they have a really strong vision for Thurston County,” explains Slaughter.
“Part of that is a focus on prevention and child and family wellness, and that’s something that’s really important to me as well.”
But children and families are only a portion of the department’s work. Many people may not know everything Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Department does. Their mission is to promote healthful social, economic and environmental conditions for all residents. This includes ensuring our community has clean, safe water and food, disease prevention and vaccinations, emergency preparedness, housing and more. Slaughter goes on to describe a desire for public education and service. “We are here to serve our community, and we want to be a really strong partner to the public and be accessible and available and share lots of great information.”
As the Public Health and Social Services Director, Slaughter also serves on the Coordinating Council of Thurston Thrives, which she describes as “a community-wide, collective impact effort to improve public health and safety -from clean air and fresh water, to pleasant neighborhoods and beyond with the department being a partner in that.”
Thurston Thrives is one of the ways that Thurston County Public Health and Social Services is involved in addressing the influencers on health that fall outside of the realm of traditional health care. “So much of what we do at our department is related to the social determinants of health,” explains Slaughter.
What are the social determinants of health? Healthypeople.gov defines them as “the range of personal, social, economic and environmental factors that influence health status.” In other words, everything that makes up our lives from our genes, to where we live and what we eat, are all factors in how healthy we are. For that reason, public health and social services are truly overlapping fields, and Ms. Slaughter’s understanding of this crucial fact is apparent in her work and her life.
When she’s not at work or spending time with her children (three teenagers and a 6-year-old!), Slaughter can be found running. She likes to participate in community races, but assures me that they’re “just little ones like 5K or 10K. The longest one I’ve done is a half marathon.”
After even only a few minutes of chatting with her, I’m convinced that Slaughter’s ability to run multiple kilometers and even half marathons (in addition to raising four children and directing an agency) is only a glimpse of her strength.
Schelli Slaughter is a strong leader with thoughtful intentions to improve health in Thurston County, equipped with the knowledge and experience to bring those intentions to life.
When asked what makes her excited about her work, Slaughter looked to the future with great optimism.
“I’m loving this job. I think there’s a huge opportunity that we have to really make some big strides in our community and move the needle to make Thurston County the healthiest, most thriving county in Washington State.”
Q&A with Schelli Slaughter, Director, Thurston County Health and Social Services
What are some of the challenges that public health and social services is facing today, and what priorities would you like to see addressed?
It’s a time of a lot of change, locally, regionally, statewide, nationally and change can be scary. People are wondering how these changes might affect us now and in the future, but it can also be a great opportunity for us to evaluate what’s really important to us and to inspire action and creative ways of getting things done. Thurston County is a resilient, thriving community. We have to make sure that—despite funding cuts or changes in policy—our environment is protected—that we have clean and safe water and food, that people have access to affordable medical care, safe affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, and homes, free from violence; that we are prepared for emergencies and prevent disease outbreaks, and to ensure that people have a strong social support system and information they need to make informed decisions on what is healthiest and best for their family.
What does this first year in the director role look like for you?
I will be focused on strengthening collaborative relationships in the community and working together to improve the health, safety and wellness of our community. There are new efforts and opportunities for us to work together as a region, across sectors with businesses, hospitals, schools, criminal justice, behavioral health, and I’m really excited that people are seeing how interconnected we are and looking at the big picture of our health as a community. Thurston County is ranked #7 healthiest county in Washington and we should be very proud of that, but I would like to work toward improving that even more, pursue accreditation and really focus on best practices and innovations in our field. Child and family wellness will be a big priority for us this first year. I also would like to see our Department lead efforts in Thurston County to be a family friendly workplace.
Is the Thurston Thrives initiative part of your scope of work?
Yes, we are a partner in Thurston Thrives, a public-private collective impact effort. Action teams are aligned with our public health efforts, and we want to see how by working together across sectors we can move the needle in a significant way to be a healthier, safer, thriving community.
Rebekah Finn is a freelance writer for the VOICE magazine and can be contacted at [email protected]
Photo credits: Heather Harris of Elements Photography. All photos were taken at the offices of Thurston County Public Health and Social Services on Lilly Road in Olympia.